Source: Frank Kessler, ‘Astor – Harmonie’, in Arthur Knight, Clara Pafort-Overduin, and Deb Verhoeven (eds.), ‘Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World’, Senses of Cinema, issue 68, March 2011, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/senses-of-cinema-going-brief-reports-on-going-to-the-movies-around-the-world
Text: Growing up in the town of Offenbach, Germany, just across the river Main from the much larger city of Frankfurt, my memories of going to the movies as a child and a young teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s are in fact more about the theatres than the films. Or rather, when I do remember a film, I almost always recall the cinema where I saw it, while I do have quite vivid memories of the theatres anyway, even when I only have vague recollections of the films I went to see there.
When I was first allowed to go to the movies without a grown-up by my side, mostly accompanied by a friend from school, I must have been twelve or thirteen years old. We had a preference for films with soldiers in them, ancient Greeks or Romans, but sometimes also World War II battles (Catch-22 , which we saw even though we were under age, turned out to be an utterly disturbing and confusing experience). The cinema we usually attended was an already relatively run-down theatre that has now been closed for many years. It was called the Astor and situated quite conveniently in the centre of Offenbach, directly opposite the bus stop. The somewhat faded charms of the Astor, together with the program consisting mainly of action movies, Spaghetti Westerns, and comedies (Catch-22 was actually shown in the more up-market Universum), had a paradoxical effect on me: alongside the excitement and the curiosity about what the film would bring, there was also a feeling of a certain uneasiness, a tension as if I was about to do something illicit. I am sure that many others will have similar recollections of going to the movies during puberty. There was of course the occasional nudity and, more generally, a confrontation with images that made me wonder, “do I actually want to see this?” — the violence, the sensuality, the things that a child definitely was not meant to behold. And thus there was deep inside a realization that movie-going somehow was related to moving out of childhood into something else that was both attractive and repulsive, both exciting and threatening. The Astor, for me, was a curious place, one that both promised and refused a sense of belonging.
A few years later, when the Astor had probably already closed down or was about to do so, my taste in films had changed considerably. I was a student by then at the University of Frankfurt, had managed to live through fifteen months of military service, had my driver’s license and could use my parent’s car in the evening. This newly acquired independence and mobility took me regularly to a cinema that was the first art house in Frankfurt, the Harmonie. Once a neighborhood theatre, it had ended up showing X-rated movies before being taken over by a cooperative of five young cinephiles. So it was not only a place where one could watch an ambitious mix of newly released art films and classics from the repertoire, but it was also perceived as something like a political experiment, a collectively owned cinema where people associated with what was then called “the non-dogmatic left” went to see films that often told stories about unconventional lives. Among the most successful films, which had runs of several months and re-appeared regularly in the program afterwards, were Alain Tanner’s Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000 (Jonas Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976), Coline Serreau’s Pourqui pas! (1977) and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971 — it must already have been a re-run when I first saw it) — and, not to forget, the almost always sold-out Saturday night cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The Harmonie had (and still has) a balcony where one tried to get a seat, preferably in the first row. The Harmonie was also a door to something else, to another way of life maybe, even if that only happened on the screen. However, there was nothing threatening about that. Going to the Harmonie clearly was about “belonging” as well, but this was where one wanted to belong.
In the end, of course, the difference in my experiences of movie-going at the beginning and at the end of the 1970s was only partly due to the cinemas as such. Obviously, the Harmonie could not have existed in Offenbach in the early 1970s, but even if it had, it would have been as ambivalent a place to me as the Astor. At that point in my life, it was the age much more than the films or the theatres that determined the way I felt about going to the movies — as something both alluring and frightening, or, later, as something I wanted to be part of. So when, and where, exactly does one become a cinephile?
Comments: Frank Kessler is professor of media history at Utrecht University. His recollections of cinema-going in Germany in the 1970s were originally published in a special issue of the online film journal Senses of Cinema. I am grateful for his permission to reproduce the piece here.